Friday, June 15, 2018

Niagara (1953)

January 21, 1953, release date
Directed by Henry Hathaway
Screenplay by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen, Walter Reisch
Music by Sol Kaplan
Edited by Barbara McLean
Cinematography by Joseph MacDonald

Marilyn Monroe as Rose Loomis
Joseph Cotten as George Loomis
Jean Peters as Polly Cutler
Max Showalter (aka Casey Adams) as Ray Cutler
Denis O’Dea as Inspector Starkey
Richard Allan as Patrick
Don Wilson as Mr. Kettering
Lurene Tuttle as Mrs. Kettering
Russell Collins as Mr. Qua
Will Wright as the boatman

Distributed by 20th Century Fox

I wasn’t looking forward all that much to seeing Niagara. Film noir in color? I didn’t believe color could work for film noir. And I had seen bits and pieces of the film at various times on television and wasn’t impressed. I should know by now, from my own experience, that it’s impossible to judge a film from bits and pieces, but initial impressions are so hard to overcome. Seeing Niagara from beginning to end on DVD was a very pleasant surprise, however. In fact, I plan to see it again.

From Wikipedia: “. . . Niagara was filmed in three-strip Technicolor, one of the last films to be made at Fox in that format because a few months later Fox began converting to CinemaScope, which had compatibility problems with three-strip Technicolor but not with Eastmancolor.” Click here for more information about the film.

Rose and George Loomis are an unhappily married couple, and Rose wants out of the marriage. She has found a boyfriend who is willing to help her get rid of George, and they set their plan in motion. Rose presents George to everyone as an unstable sort. The fact that he is a Korean War veteran suffering from battle fatigue (a phrase George himself uses in the film) doesn’t inspire any sympathy from others, including Polly and Ray Cutler, the couple also vacationing at Niagara Falls. Everyone wants to avoid George, at least at first, and his emotional outbursts serve Rose’s purpose.

While Rose and George are vacationing in a rental cottage near Niagara Falls, George breaks a vinyl record that Rose brought to a party outside their cottage. She asked the group to play it, and George doesn’t want to hear the song, one of Rose’s favorites. He cuts his hand on one of the vinyl shards, and Rose won’t follow George into their cabin to help him. Polly Cutler offers to help George, and she goes into the Loomises’ cabin to bandage his hand. This is the scene where George gives his prophetic speech comparing love to the falls.
Polly Cutler: “Let’s go out with the others.” [to see the falls lit up at night]
George Loomis: “I can’t see anybody now. I . . . I feel goofy after what happened. Let me tell you something. You’re young. You’re in love. Well, I’ll give you a warning. Don’t let it get out of hand like those falls out there. Up above it . . . Did you ever see the river up above the falls? It’s calm and easy. If you throw in a log, it just floats around. Let it move a little further down, and it gets going fast. It hits some rocks, and in a moment, it’s in the lower rapids, and nothing in the world, including God himself, I suppose, can keep it from going over the edge. It just goes.”
Polly Cutler: “Don’t worry. I’m one of those logs that just hangs around in the calm.”

(This blog post contains spoilers about Niagara and Hitchcock’s Vertigo.)

From the outset, Niagara sounds like a typical film noir, but the use of color takes it out of the 1940s and updates it—and it’s all done successfully. The cinematography is beautiful. The use of light and shadow is done so well that I almost forgot I was watching a film noir in color instead of one in black and white. One notable exception is Rose Loomis and her red lipstick: She wears it to bed and in the shower! I’m not sure who made the decision to allow Rose to wear red lipstick in every scene, but I’m willing to overlook it because of all the other fantastic shots in the film. For example, Rose Loomis returns to her tourist cabin and looks out her window to the falls. She knows her boyfriend is tracking her husband, and she closes the blinds rather than face the truth, which leaves her alone and in shadow. During the sequence when George strangles Rose in the bell tower, viewers see shot after shot (eight total) of the bells, now still and silent. The sequence emphasizes that it takes some time to kill Rose, and it’s horrifying, even though her death actually happens off camera.

Many of the scenes in the bell tower reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo (1958). I checked to see if the music and the cinematography were done by the same people, but they were not. George uses Rose’s favorite song, one that reminds her of her now-dead boyfriend, to taunt her, and that narrative device also reminded of Vertigo, when John “Scottie” Ferguson wonders if he isn’t going mad after Madeleine’s death.

Another great feature of Niagara is Marilyn Monroe in the role of Rose Loomis. Monroe could have made a career out of playing femme fatales. It’s too bad that the 1940s film noir style was going out of fashion in the 1950s because Monroe’s acting ability shines in Niagara. I have seen Don’t Bother to Knock, in which Monroe stars alongside Richard Widmark, once only. I’m really looking forward to it again after seeing Monroe in Niagara.

Rose Loomis is a femme fatale with emotional layers, and Monroe portrays Rose in all her complexity. From my limited reading about Monroe, I understand that she didn’t have much confidence in her acting ability, which is unfortunate because she gives an outstanding performance in Niagara. She can match Joseph Cotten in his role as her husband George. I have a new-found admiration for Monroe as a serious actress.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Wings of Danger (1952)

April 1, 1952 (United States), May 26, 1952 (United Kingdom), release dates
Directed by Terence Fisher
Screenplay by John Gilling
Based on the novel Dead on Course by Trevor Dudley-Smith (aka Elleston Trevor) and Packham Webb
Music by Malcolm Arnold
Edited by James Needs
Cinematography by Walter J. Harvey

Zachary Scott as Richard Van Ness
Robert Beatty as Nick Tolbert
Naomi Chance as Avril Tolbert
Kay Kendall as Alexia LaRoche
Colin Tapley as Inspector Jerry Maxwell
Arthur Lane as Boyd Spencer
Harold Lang as Snell, the blackmailer
Jack Allen as Tniscott
Douglas Muir as Doctor Wilner
Ian Fleming as Pops Tolbert
Larry Taylor as O’Gorman, the henchman
Darcy Conyers as the signals officer
Sheila Raynor as the nurse
Courtney Hope as Mrs. Clarence, hotel tenant
Anthony T. Miles as Sam, the desk clerk
Diane Cilento as Jeannette

Distributed by Lippert Pictures (United States), Exclusive Films (United Kingdom)
Produced by Hammer Film Productions

After the credits, Richard Van Ness (Zachary Scott’s character) opens with a voice-over about Nick Tolbert: “He [Nick] was the sort of guy you couldn’t be mad at for too long, no matter what he said nor what he did. And brother Nick did plenty.” Nick, a pilot for Boyd Spencer Airline, insists on flying out even though a storm is coming. He blackmails Van Ness, his boss and also a pilot, about the fact that Van Ness blacks out every now and then, something that could cost Van Ness his job. Nick flies out, and Van Ness and the radio operator lose contact with him in the storm. The next day, Van Ness flies over the English Channel, but he knows that Nick is lost and won’t be found, in spite of the search going on for him.

Wings of Danger is the title for the film’s release in Great Britain, where the film is set. Dead on Course is the title given to the film for its release in the United States. I am using the title Wings of Danger in this blog post, mostly because the DVD I borrowed used that title.

Jerry Maxwell, a police inspector investigates Nick Tolbert’s death. He talks to Van Ness about smuggling of money and gold between England the rest of Europe. He wants to know if Van Ness is “in the racket.” In his line of work, it’s natural for Maxwell to wonder if Tolbert’s crash and presumed death was an accident or not. Tolbert never answered his radio, apparently even before the storm started. Was he dead at the controls? Maxwell also wants to use Van Ness to get to Boyd Spencer, owner of the airline, via Spencer’s girlfriend Alexia. Boyd and everyone associated with the airline are potential suspects in the smuggling and in Tolbert’s murder. The remainder of the film unravels the mystery surrounding Tolbert’s death and the smuggling happening under the auspices of the Boyd Spencer Airline.

It was a real treat for me to see Zachary Scott playing a good guy. I have seen him as Monte Beragon in Mildred Pierce probably dozens of time, and he is fantastic as a smarmy hanger-on. But he’s also fantastic playing a decent sort trying to help his friends and the police. He also shows some flair playing the straight man and in delivering some witty lines in Wings of Danger. Here are a couple of examples:
Alexia, Boyd Spencer’s girlfriend, is attracted to Van Ness. He shows up at her rooms to purchase dollars for someone else as a way to set up a trap to discover who is smuggling what. Alexia can arrange it but she tries to seduce Van Ness, too.
Alexia: “You really keep yourself on ice. Don’t you, Van?
Van Ness: “Do I?”
Alexia: “Don’t you ever melt?”
Van Ness: “Yes. Sometimes. In the dark.”
Alexia: “Well, that’s fine. Tomorrow at ten o’clock. In the dark.”
Van Ness invites someone named Snell to his rooms so he can interrogate him. Snell is blackmailing Van Ness’s girlfriend Avril Tolbert; Snell is also doing some work for Boyd Spencer. During the interrogation, Van Ness is interrupted by a phone call from Avril. While Van Ness is on the phone, Snell launches a glass vase at Van Ness.
Avril: “What was that?”
Van Ness: “What?”
Avril: “That noise.”
Van Ness: “I was just putting out a cigarette.”
Avril: “But I heard a crash.”
Van Ness: “Well, you see, it was a very heavy cigarette, one of those Turkish blends. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
So there is a little bit of humor to go with all the intrigue, and it works. I quickly forgot about Monte Beragon and became engrossed in Van Ness’s story.

I was also pleased by the fact that Wings of Danger had a couple of surprises for me. I am always impressed when a film, novel, or short story has a plot twist or two to surprise me.

According to the DVD that I watched, Wings of Danger has a playing time of 1:11:51, so it’s not even seventy-two minutes long! It’s a short, low-budget B film that is great fun to watch.